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Last year I wrote a piece for Memeburn about ways I felt Helen Zille was using Twitter well. She was controversial even back then, but I liked her for four reasons:
- She was responsive
- She was unscripted
- She was active and
- She had a sense of humour
Overall, I loved the fact that she was both accessible and real. No PR gloss: you got Helen pretty much undiluted. I didn’t mind the sarcasm; somehow it lent her a certain appealing authenticity. A year later and Helen Zille is still all of those things, but something has changed. From being appealingly frank, she’s become rude and arrogant, an object lesson in the dangers of Twitter — and why sometimes it’s better just to turn the phone off.
In an effort to maintain symmetry with my previous article, here are four ways in which, based on the evidence to hand, she’s losing the plot:
1. She was responsive. Now she feeds the trolls
The first rule of being online: don’t feed the trolls. Political leaders will always attract the worst elements of the digital demimonde, but that does not mean that they should pay attention to them. Why is the leader of the opposition responding to a cretin with all of seven followers? Why is she dignifying this kind of abuse with a response?
This kind of engagement does nothing for democracy; it’s a freak show that plays to the lowest common denominator.
2. She’s unscripted, to the point where Twitter is a regular supplier of anti-DA ammunition.
Whether it’s the “professional black” debacle or the “refugee” fracas, almost all the controversy she generates now comes from tweets. Her adversaries watch her every move to find an excuse to lambaste her, and she hands the opportunity to them on a platter, neatly packaged in the form of a ready –made 140 character soundbite.
3. She’s way too active now
I don’t know how she responds to so many tweets. She appears to be using Twitter as her primary channel to the electorate, and that’s fine – but given the sarcasm and the insults (see point 4) and the feeding of the trolls (see above) this is becoming a problem. As Caryn Gootkin notes, “In Twitter veritas, to corrupt a well-known Latin maxim. #helenzille. She tweets what she truly thinks. Which is scary.”
4. She had a sense of humour; now she lobs insults
What’s clear from following Zille’s tweets is that she has a heck of a temper. How’s the response to this tweet from a friend of mine, an advocate who was involved in DA politics in the past, and speaks from a position of knowledge:
Wombat. Yes, Zille turns to the fauna of Australia to insult people who raise valid points. And that’s just one example of many. Her most annoying Twitter habit: the use of hashtags to emphasise the point; her favourite is #geddit. “Come with good arguments I’ll take the point,” is her response. “Won’t patronise ppl by kow-towing to idiocy or avoiding elephants in t room.” I’m not entirely sure what constitutes a good argument in 140 characters or less, but kow-towing to idiocy in her language is common courtesy in another.
To be fair, I do see her engaging in constructive ways with her critics on Twitter. I like the fact that she’s willing to do things differently, like being the first political leader to be interviewed on Twitter, by Eusebius McKaiser. But the positive is being eroded by the way she conducts herself online. As I’ve written elsewhere, the DA is making a serious tactical error in alienating a key growth market. The insults might endear her to people who love her anyway, but they do nothing to appeal to voters disenchanted with the ANC but hesitant about going over to the DA(rk) side.
What’s truly scary is that Zille says she’s acting with restraint (!) and if she said what was really on her mind, even she would be embarrassed.
I discussed this issue with a friend who conducted some training for the DA in Ekurhuleni last year. The number one point that all the councilors agreed on? Be humble. I don’t know about you, but I expect better behaviour from my leaders, especially those who are more than willing to point out the faults in others. Somebody should wrestle Helen to the ground and confiscate her phone before she does any more damage.
Image courtesy of the Democratic Alliance